Stressors & Children: Divorce

Over my years as a therapist, I have had the opportunity to support many children, couples and families affected by divorce.   Families have come to me at various stages of this process.   Some individuals or couples seek out therapy when they are trying to evaluate whether divorce is an option.  Others have reached out after they’ve decided to move forward with divorce or separation and want support around how to help their families with this transition.   Some clients (adults and/or children) come to see me after the divorce has taken place and want to process how this change has affected them.

When children are involved, parents typically have a lot of questions about how their children will respond to learning that their parents are separating or divorcing and the best way to support their children.   In general, I find that children tend to adjust the best to their parents separating or divorcing when they receive support, validation and age appropriate information about the divorce.    The support and validation that children need is around processing and coping with the changes they are experiencing and the emotions that accompany these changes.

In today’s post, I attempt to answer some of the most common questions about that I hear from parents who are planning to divorce.    My answers here are fairly general and cannot adequately address the uniqueness of each child and family situation, but I hope it gives you some basic information from which to start thinking about how to best support your child.

What type of emotional response is typical for a child?

Short answer: There is no “typical reaction.”

Longer answer: Children may respond in many different ways to their parent’s divorce.  Some children may feel relief following their parents’ divorce as there may be less day to day conflict.  Other children may struggle more and show impaired functioning at home, school or in peer interactions.

What type of emotional response is possible?

As I mentioned previously, children may respond in many different ways to their parent’s divorce.   I provided a list of some possible responses that you may see.  Please remember that you may see none of these responses.    It is incredibly unlikely that you would see all of the possible responses listed below.  You will likely see a few of the responses listed.

It is important to acknowledge and validate whatever response to the divorce that the child is experiencing.

Possible responses:

  • Confusion
  • Irritability or behavioral concerns
  • Sadness, depressed mood, crying
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Physical Complaints (headaches, stomachaches, etc)
  • Change in eating habits
  • Sleep disturbance
  • School Difficulties
  • Regression (sleep, toilet training, return to security items, thumb sucking)
  • Difficulty separating from parents
  • Discomfort
  • Relief

How can I help my children cope with their response to the divorce?

  • Coping strategies are not one size fits all.   Help your child identify coping strategies that are effective for them. Check out my previous Effective Coping Strategies for Children and Teens post for a list of coping strategies that may work well for your child.
  • Help children practice coping strategies when they are not experiencing stress and also support the child in using coping strategies in the moment. If a child is using unhealthy coping strategies, redirect them.
  • Encourage your child build a support system of other trusted adults they can talk to about their responses to the divorce. Sometimes it is difficult for children to share their feelings about the divorce with their parents because they don’t want to hurt them.   Other ideas for building a support system include:
    • Helping your child identify trusted family members and friends to talk to
    • Finding a peer support group in the community or at school
    • Considering the possibility of having your child work with an individual or family therapist
  • Model use of healthy coping strategies yourself.

How can I best minimize the negative impacts of divorce on my child?

  • Continue to communicate and work together as parents as much as is possible.
  • Avoid negative statements about the other parent.
  • Encourage children to maintain healthy relationships with both parents.
  • Check in with children about how they are feeling and coping with the changes they are experience. Acknowledge and validate their feelings.
  • Separate adult emotions from the child’s emotions and experience.
  • Answer your child’s questions about divorce.
  • Continue to spend as much time with the child as is possible. Reassure the child that both of their parents will continue to love them.
  • Help the child maintain participation in their normal activities.
  • Maintain as much routine, consistency and structure as is reasonably possible.

Divorce is a stressful time for all involved.   Remember that it is possible for your children to successfully navigate the changes and emotions that they experience.   As previously mentioned, children tend to adjust the best to their parents separating or divorcing when they receive support, validation and age appropriate information about the divorce.

If you are in the Eagan, Minnesota area, please do not hesitate to reach out to me if I can support your family through the transition of separation or divorce.   I offer counseling services and workshops which you may find helpful.   I can be reached by phone at 952-457-2322 or email at Sarah@SarahLeitschuhCounseling.com


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